Boston library projects land $700,000 from Knight Foundation to teach public about privacy and city data

The Library Freedom Project won a grant from the Knight Foundation
The Library Freedom Project won a grant from the Knight Foundation

On Friday, The Knight Foundation awarded over $700,000 in grants to two Boston-based organizations that are using libraries to educate the public about digital privacy tools and share information about public data. 

One of the winning projects, Open Data to Open Knowledge, was submitted by Boston’s chief information officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge, and seeks to take data gleaned from the city’s Open Data project and make it publicly available to the citizens through the network of public libraries. “By working with our vast network of public and academic research libraries, the City of Boston can help people access this information in a multitude of ways: to support research, to better understand their city, and to connect this new type of data and the traditional resources curated by our libraries,” Franklin-Hodge wrote in his proposal.

The other local winner was The Library Freedom Project. In a post-Snowden world, the project hopes to teach librarians around the world about digital privacy rights and laws, and provide them with tools they can use to avoid surveillance from corporations and nation states. The hope is that those librarians can then in turn educate their patrons.

“Like a lot of people, after Snowden’s revelations I started thinking about privacy more acutely,” said co-founder Alison Macrina.

Having worked in libraries for the past 10 years, Macrina currently serves as the IT Librarian at the Watertown Free Public Library (“If it blinks and beeps, it’s mine,” she says). She realized that individual branches weren’t doing much to protect themselves or their patrons, despite the fact that privacy is a core standard of the American Library Association.

Libraries serve as the sole computer and Internet source for many people every day, Macrina said, and many of those constituents belong to marginalized groups. She got the idea to not just educate the public but to reclaim libraries’ “role as privacy protectors.”

In April, Macrina reached out to Kade Crockford, director of technology for the Liberty Project at the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Working with ACLU Mass. lawyer Jesse Rossman, the duo crafted a three-part curriculum for their workshop. They delivered the first presentation to librarians at the end of July. Word of mouth spread. Since then, they’ve done 15 trainings across Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and in New York City, reaching about 600 librarians.

The workshops begin with Crockford giving a primer on the current state of widespread surveillance, a review of the Snowden revelations and other recent privacy-related stories. An ACLU lawyer will then explain privacy rights to attendees, including some specific guidelines for librarians on how to handle law enforcement queries. Finally, Macrina educates participants on the various tools available (most of them free) to better protect online privacy on both a personal and institutional level.

“We want for librarians to see us as a resource,” Crockford said. “We want to make sure libraries can fulfill the promise that they make to users, that they have a public space where they can pursue — free from surveillance — intellectual inquiry.”

The workshops highlight tools like the anonymizing Tor web browser and AdBlock Plus, a browser extension that blocks online advertisements. But beyond the educational components there’s a rich community engagement aspect.

At a December workshop at Simmons College, the room erupted into a healthy debate about how librarians could best serve their members no fewer than five times. Questions arose about which groups were disproportionately affected by surveillance and the effectiveness of widespread communications monitoring in the wake of 9/11.

But Macrina admits that despite her best efforts to better educate librarians, budgets and staffing shortages do limit the amount she can accomplish.

She and her team delivered their workshop to the staff of the Somerville Public Library, but so far reference librarian Kevin O’Kelly has only been able to implement just a few of the tools he learned about on his work and personal computers. He’s made personal recommendations to friends and colleagues, but at the moment O’Kelly’s library is without an IT librarian, meaning his patrons haven’t reaped the full benefits of the Library Freedom Project.

Institutional hurdles like these often present themselves as librarians look to implement greater privacy features on their public facing computers. A tech allergic boss or resource constrained library network might be enough to maintain the status quo and the privacy gaps.

“We are at a time period when our lives are more exposed than ever before,” O’Kelly said. “People do all kinds of things on their computers, in their own homes and they have this illusion that it’s private. And it’s not.”

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at george.levines@gmail.com.
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